SCMP Friday, December 15, 2000


Mind your manners

ANNA HEALY FENTON

Probably the most memorable scene in the film Pretty Woman is where Julia Roberts' character is faced with escargots at a formal dinner. Dining with her sophisticated escort, played by Richard Gere, and his business cronies, she is stumped. In desperation she grasps the tongs and tries to copy the others, but only succeeds in catapulting the snail across the room. "Slippery little suckers," she giggles nervously.
We know Roberts is only acting, so we laugh. It's a different matter in real life when normally confident people commit dreadful faux pas in social or business situations. The hardest part is working out just where etiquette is required. There is no little red book; it's a constantly evolving standard which moves with the times.
Nevertheless, even with cultural melding, global fashion brands and a trend towards informality, there's still no better indication of a person's social sophistication than how they conduct themselves in polite company or a business context.
Ironically, now that money has superseded the old class distinctions and accents are increasingly merging, a high value is still placed on good manners. If evidence of this were needed, look no further than Christa Koch-Kessler who recently set up her company Class Act in Hong Kong.
She's an immaculately groomed, down-to-earth German, a 20-year veteran of the restaurant and hospitality business with considerable experience in China.
She is offering insights and tips on etiquette, protocol, Western table manners and an understanding of fine food and wine, tailor-made for corporate and individual clients.
People are sensitive about etiquette, she says, emphasising that it's not a question of one culture being right and another wrong, but of different conventions.
"There's a lot of uncertainty here and in China about Western table manners," she says. Chinese interest in Western etiquette is increasing, she has observed, especially in business circles, with the growing need to entertain international clients.
"The Chinese appreciate the importance of good manners," she adds. "When they entertain Westerners, they want to get it right." Women in mixed marriages need a lot of support too, she says, especially where the husband works for a Western company.
Class Act takes a hands-on approach, which is supposed to make it fun. In one of her sessions, clients are shown how to write invitations and dress appropriately, the duties of the host, American and Continental styles of eating and how to tackle difficult foods. Then they get to do it for themselves. She employs a professional actor to demonstrate the right and wrong way to do things.
Those gathered for one of her recent Dinner Talk classes are a mixed bunch, all suits, and include polished-looking public relations types. The setting is a private dining room at a smart Kowloon hotel.
Koch-Kessler has a no-nonsense air as befits someone who, according to her resume, used to oversee the running of a German noble house, as well as organising special events for royalty at their private houses and castles.
First, the invitations. "Even in our speedy world, take the time to hand-write an invitation, then you have the thought someone really wants you," she says.
Dress codes came next. Black tie isn't as simple as it sounds - men should don dinner jackets. Women should "preferably wear long dresses" but can be "fashionable". Cocktail dresses are taboo. Casual clothes should only be worn with "people you feel comfortable around who will not be offended". Business attire calls for dark suit and tie, "no light or bright suits" and for women, "not too much fashion". Try telling that to the T-shirted doyens of the dotcoms.
Next came table manners. Napkins, elbows and bread are the minefields. Napkins should never be tucked in at the neck, bib-style, unless you are grappling with a messy lobster and have a special neck apron. And never, ever, wipe your mouth, just blot delicately, especially if you're wearing lipstick. Koch-Kessler's personal bugbear is Asian waiters who grab your used napkin if you move and re-fold it into elaborate shapes.
Just then the strangled strains of the William Tell Overture burst forth from a mobile phone. What does Koch-Kessler advocate when it comes to mobile phone abuse? "They should be switched OFF at the table," she says simply. "If you answer a call it shows the host that other things are more important than his or her company. It's rude. If you are expecting something urgent, have your calls diverted to the restaurant, then you can take it discreetly."
Politeness demands that washroom visits be staggered, so that the conversation isn't suddenly halted by a gang walkout. So much for those girlie confabs in the powder room.
The biggest problem for Chinese people is getting over the ingrained aversion to touching food, which we Westerners do without thinking, she says. But bread must be broken off the roll and never cut with the knife. One bite-sized bit at a time. And as for those elbows, they should stay off the table.
Another headache for all is getting the hang of the differences between American and European etiquette. For example, in the US it is customary to place one hand on the table, while resting the other in the lap. In Europe where "all hands on deck" is the norm, this is deemed very dodgy indeed. In the US this is perfectly correct, but Europeans are a bit snobbish about transatlantic manners, it seems. Equally, Koch-Kessler adds, Europeans disapprove of the American habit of leaving knife and fork splayed across the plate. The Europeans place them neatly together. "Put your knife and fork together, otherwise the waiting staff won't know when to take your plate," she points out.
Yet another baffling difference between European and American table manners is the US tendency to chop food up, then change hands and eat it with the fork in the right hand. From her disapproving frown it isn't hard to guess what Koch-Kessler thinks of this. "In Europe you cut your food one piece at a time, bring it to your mouth and stop eating when you turn to talk to your neighbour," she says emphatically. This is different again, she adds, to the Chinese style of bringing the bowl up towards the face when using chopsticks.
So how should Julia Roberts have tackled her snails? "Pick up the shell in the metal tongs provided and use the seafood fork held in the other hand, to dig out the snail. Then eat it in one bite."